Google Streetview Goes Under and the Importance of Its Sponsor

The latest frontier to be explored by Google Earth Streetview is the ocean. As a part of this exciting effort, over 400,000 panoramic photos have been taken of the watery world, including coral reefs and the deep sea. Although not all panoramas are available online yet, many dazzling shots can be seen here.

The sponsor behind this project is Catlin Seaview Survey, a scientifically minded organization that hopes to record the world’s reefs in 360º to increase appreciation and thus the effort to save and conserve them. But the photos serve as more than simple aesthetic pleasures. They are also valuable data points that will provide a baseline for reef health. By comparing the panoramas that are being taken now to those that will be taken later, researchers can monitor the effects of such detriments as pollution, acidification, and severe weather.

In addition to the photos, scientists with the CSS are also collecting tissue samples for further studies and using PAM (Pulsed Amplitude Modulated) stress detection devices to detect stress in deep waters without having to send divers.

This project is so vital because over 500 million people around the world depend on coral reefs, whether it’s for food, tourism revenue, or storm buffering. It is not some esoteric study that will be buried in scientific journals. All data is publicly available on the Catlin website and will hopefully encourage action to protect these reefs.

Santa Rosa Wall, Monaco

Santa Rosa Wall, Monaco

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Ingenious New Way to Track Polar Bears

Formerly, scientific researchers studying polar bears had no choice but to tranquilize the animals in order to fit collars and collect samples if they needed information.  Now, learning more about the white bear of the north may be as simple as locating a few footprints.

A new research method involves collecting snow around the prints the bears leave behind as they trek across the Arctic, melting down that snow, and filtering it to extract DNA from the remaining cells.

On a recent WWF expedition to the Svalbard Islands of Norway, researchers had great success using this procedure.  Snow was collected from 10 prints left by a female polar bear.  DNA evidence showed that a seal and seagull were both present.  The seal blood present indicated that the bear had killed the seal.  Scientists at the French genetic firm Spygen speculated that the seagull arrived later to feast on the leftovers.

The implications of extracting DNA from footprints are far reaching, as just one cell can provide much information.  This technique has also been used successfully on a brown bear track left in the mud and Scientists at the University of Grenoble are hoping to use a similar method to analyze water samples and determine what species of fish and amphibians are present.

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WWF Cameras Catch Rare Asiatic Black Bear

The endangered species was spotted in the Quang Nam Province of Vietnam.  Its presence in the forests there indicates increased ecosystem health after the start of the ambitious Carbon and Biodiversity Programme.  The initiative, which tracks wild animals with camera traps and implements a “forest guard” of law enforcement officers trained to combat poaching, seems to be off to a great start.

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Obama’s Expansion of Marine Reserve is a Huge Victory

As a part of his year of action, President Obama has just expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. It is now the largest marine reserve in the world, and six times larger than the original reserve at 490,000 square miles (nearly twice the size of Texas). The protected area surrounding 7 U.S. controlled islands between Hawaii and American Samoa represents a major conservation victory.

The reserve is completely off limits to commercial fishing, dumping, and deep sea mining in order to better protect the vulnerable coral reefs, seamounts, and unique marine ecosystems of this area.  (Seamounts are undersea mountains formed by volcanic activity often host to incredible biodiversity hotspots.)  The expansion will also better protect marine animals with “large migration and foraging ranges that stretch throughout the area,” like sea turtles, many marine mammals, seabirds and manta rays.

This proclamation comes on the heels of the National Climate Assessment which states that climate change is causing sea levels and temperatures to rise, putting reefs at greater risk for damage.  The coral is also threatened by ocean acidification, which is increasing 50 times faster than any previously recorded change in millions of years.

Such a monumental project does not, however, come without complications.  Policing such a large territory will be difficult.  The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard was already stretched thin protecting the former boundaries of the reserve.  Enforcing the fishing ban will require finding individual boats conducting illegal activity, or “pirate fishing,” over an immense territory.  So far, the Obama administration has not made public any plans for enforcing the proclamation, but the use of drones and GPS tracking is being considered.

A more preemptive strategy is also in the works.  Secretary of State John Kerry hopes the Port State Measures agreement, an international treaty to ban illegal fish from the market, will reduce the need for vast security measures in the new reserve.  11 nations have already signed, but before the treaty is official, 25 nations must agree.  Nonetheless, Kerry hopes to have it done within a year.

Although the plan requires some further development, experts laud Obama’s efforts.  The new Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is testament to the expanding political interest in protecting our oceans.

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Nautilus Expedition

In 2008, Dr. Robert Ballard founded the Ocean Exploration Trust.  It’s purpose: to fund ocean exploration.  The program’s international expeditions take place on the Exploration Vessel Nautilus, a 210 foot ship.  The Nautilus collects scientific data, but also involves the public in its journey with live audio, video, and data feeds.  And, at certain stopping points, the public is welcomed aboard.  Educators and students get hands-on marine science experience.

Currently, the Nautilus is located in the Lesser Antilles at the Kick Em Jenny Submarine Volcano where the program’s ROV Hercules (remotely operated underwater vehicle) is descending to the depths.

See the amazing live feed here!

And see some shots from the trip so far below:

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